Rethinking your Approach: Clay Model vs Stone Sculpture

So, I make an appearance …

I had much internal debate if this was a post for Civil 3D Rocks or if this should be my first post over here.

And won out. I think it is about time this frat house took the beer cans off the Christmas tree and got some pink frilly curtains.

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time with different types of Civil 3D users.

There are two groups that come to mind specifically.

Group 1:
Two incredibly talented and experienced Civil Designers. These guys teach me new stuff every time we work together. They have the whole site figured out in their heads. They work in a very point/cogo paradigm. They can layout and design a perfect site on the first try in Land Desktop with no problem. Tight enough to make you cry.

But they STRUGGLED with Civil 3D. And they still have their doubts. We have spent six days together on a pilot project, plus a few more. After day three, we had a 20 lot site plan that they were almost happy with. Just the parcels.

Group 2:
Four summer interns (Civil Engineering Students) and two young EITs. They are developmental in their understanding of “good design” but they are eager and tech savvy. I came in with absolutely no expectation of getting anything done. I reluctantly dragged my sorry self in there as a favor to the owner, a good friend of mine, fully prepared for blank stares all day.

But by the end of the day, each one of them had a fully parceled subdivision, including a cul de sac, a transitioning corridor, several surfaces with several analyses applied, and the list goes on. I barely even taught anything- I’d just give a few guidelines and they’d figure it out.


The first is that we have to know the difference between having a site fully MODELED


having a site fully DESIGNED.

Group 1 had their site fully DESIGNED then began creating a MODEL.

Group 2 had their site fully MODELED then would need to iterate and seek feedback before their DESIGN would be complete.

Maybe this would help you visualize what I am talking about.

Think of sculpting with stone. You are given one block of granite and the appropriate chiseling tools to create this horse. You are suddenly in a position where each strike of the hammer is irreversible. So instead of diving in an experimenting, you take a lot of time really working out your design and carefully plan each strike. You try to get as many of your trials done in your head and on paper because you know it is difficult to make the change once the granite has been shaped. Now consider your kid coming back and saying they want a pig instead. Time for a new block of granite.

Think of building with clay. Or playdough even. If you want to model a horse with playdough, you can start with a shapeless blob, then give it a general horse shape, then slowly refine. You can change your mind and start over completely, or you can just redo a portion of the horse- one leg, the head, etc. Either way, the dough is forgiving and resilient. Finally, you can make the last minute touches like buttons for eyes or different color dough for mane and tail. But if your kid comes back later and says he wants a pig instead, you could easily break it down to bare shapes and start again without having to completely redo the entire form.

So Group 1 comes from a Stone World where changes in the CAD environment require so much bookkeeping and sheet changing that they want to have every detail ironed out before even picking up the mouse.

They want every parcel boundary they create to be the “right” location.

Instead of allowing me to show them how to stock their toolbox with different playdough cutting tools, they want me to essentially show them how to make Civil 3D draft as if it were AutoCAD.

This means lots of fixed lines and curves on alignments, lots of fixed parcel lines, etc. and not much flexibility above and beyond what regular AutoCAD entities could give them.

Group 2 is happy with playdough. They want to experiement with shapes and textures. They want to get the aligments, profiles and corridors built in a fashion that makes sense from a reactivity point of view, then play around with grades and constantly visualize the results in 3D. They want to see where their mistakes are in 3d view, then adjust, rebuilt and continue.

While they still certainly need guidance to make sure their design comes together well- they can quickly make those changes and see the results of their efforts immediately.

Both groups can certainly benefit from Civil 3D. Even when used as a Stone Chisel, Civil 3D makes labeling and annotation really easy, adjusts your text sizes, reacts to revisions, helps you compute areas and many other tasks.

But the real power and the real productivity gains come from those who can change their view of design from the “Red Pen and Paper” world of Stone to the experimental and iterative world of a Clay Model.

Perhaps is seems scary- but think about your firm, your future, your competition. What are you delivering? What are they delivering? How quickly can you change your design? What makes your firm worth more than a manual drafting house?

Granite is expensive to cast aside, while playdough is reusable- and a whole lot more fun, too.


  1. Dana, I am so glad to see you here. Wanted to see if this comment made it to all of the Rockstars. Test.

  2. Dana, what a great analogy! This describes so many firms, and after reading this, might persuade them to finally jump in and realize that they can swim instead of sink.

  3. was this really my first post here? i had forgotten that it was my very first post that inspired the playdoh handouts. i think i got voted down on the pink curtains, but at least they let me keep the hello kitty sticker on my laptop.